Two postings back, I discussed the prevalence of slavery in the New Testament and its survival in Christianity (see  Today we will look at an interesting related issue.  Be cautioned — this requires careful reading, because it can be rather confusing — a confusion that is reflected in iconography.

There is an icon type depicting the healing story found in Matthew 8:5-13:

In it, a Roman centurion (we see him with Jesus in the above image) comes to request healing for his παῖς/pais:

“[Jesus] Having entered into Capernaum, there came to him a centurion [ἑκατόνταρχος/hekatontarkhos], beseeching him and saying, ‘Lord, my pais [παῖς] is lying in the house paralyzed, terribly tormented.’  And he [Jesus] says to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’

But the centurion, answering him, said, ‘Lord [Kyrie], I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only speak the word and my pais will be healed.  For even I — a man — am under authority.  I have under me soldiers, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to that one, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulos] Do this! and he does it.’   Jesus hearing him was amazed, and said to those following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith in Israel.'”

Now the question is, what did the Centurion in the story mean by pais?  The usual English translation will say (euphemistically) that the pais here is his servant, however that is not at all clear from the context.  Indeed, when the Centurion is telling Jesus how he just gives a command and is obeyed by his soldiers, he adds that all he has to do is say to his slave (doulos) “Do this!” and the slave does it.  Now again, in most English translations, both pais and doulos are commonly and euphemistically translated as “servant.”

A doulos, however, is not a servant as we understand the term.  A doulos is quite literally a slave, and the legal property of his owner.  Pais, however, can mean a child, a boy; it can also be a term used for a male slave (just as slave owners in the American South used the term “boy” when referring to a male slave, with the appellation surviving even in post-slavery times as an implied disrespectful deprecation in the southern United States when used for men of African descent).  A pais may even signify the male sex partner of the slave owner (those who favor this interpretation point out that in New Testament times, centurions were not allowed to marry, though of course some had female sex partners).

So, was the pais of the Centurion in “Matthew” his son?  Was he asking Jesus to heal his boy?  Or was he asking him to heal his slave, and if so, why does he use pais in one place, and doulos in another, as though he is speaking of two different persons?  I will leave the “male sex partner” possibility for others to ponder.

In any case, how is it that most English translations  — given this uncertainty — render pais here as “servant” and not “boy”?

The answer is that the translators go to the parallel story in the gospel called “Of Luke.”  As you know, “Mark” is considered to be the first gospel written of the New Testament four, and both “Matthew” and “Luke” are expanded, edited versions of Mark, adding additional material (notably birth and resurrection appearance stories at beginning and end, as well as other material in the main body of the text).

Mark, however, has no tale of a centurion coming to Jesus and asking for healing.  But there is a version of the story in “Luke” 7:1-10:

“And when he [Jesus] had finished all his words in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum.  And a certain slave [doulos] of a centurion was ill, about to die, who was precious to him.

And hearing about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, begging him to come cure his slave [doulon].  And coming to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, ‘Worthy is he to whom he will grant this, for he loves our nation, and built a synagogue for us.’  And Jesus went with them.

And when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  Therefore I did not consider myself worthy to come to you.  But say the word, and my pais shall be healed.  For I a man am appointed under authority, having soldiers under me, and I say to this one, Go! and he goes, and to another, Come! and he comes, and to my slave [doulo] Do this! and he does it.’

And having heard these things, Jesus was amazed by him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, ‘I tell you, I did not even find such faith in Israel.'”

Now obviously this is just a variation on the same story, though in Luke’s version, the Centurion does not himself come to Jesus, but instead sends Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come.   But in the Lukan version (unlike “Matthew”) it is quite clear that the Centurion’s doulos and his pais are one and the same person — his slave.  And that is why translators, reading Luke, make the Centurion’s pais in Matthew his “servant” and not his boy (though as we have seen, doulos really means “slave.”

We have, however, also seen that there are differences in the two stories, and so we cannot know for certain that the pais in Matthew was the Centurion’s slave and not his own son.

In fact the matter is only further confused if we take a look at another story, found in the gospel “Of John,” 4:46-54:

“So Jesus came again into Cana of Galilee, where he had made the water wine.  And there was a certain royal official [βασιλικὸς/basilikos], whose son [υἱὸς/huios] was ill in Capernaum.

He, hearing that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, asked that he would come down and heal his son, for he was about to die.  Jesus therefore said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.’

The royal official [basiliskos] says to him, ‘Lord [Kyrie], come down before my child [παιδίον/paidion] dies.’

Jesus says to him, ‘Go, your son [υἱός/huios] lives.’

The story continues for a few more lines, but that is the essence of it.

Now it seems this tale in “John” is just another variant of the same tale told in Matthew and Luke.  The Centurion becomes a “royal official,” and the pais of Matthew  becomes quite clearly the “son” of the official in John.  In fact when the official asks Jesus to come before his son dies, he uses the word παιδίον/paidion, which is just a diminutive form of παῖς/pais.

So that leaves us still not knowing what “Matthew” intended the pais of the Centurion to be, though it may well have been his son, as in John, and not his slave.  Luke makes it quite clear that in his story, the pais is a slave.  But in John, the official’s paidion is quite clearly his huios, his son.

So, those brave and patient souls among you who have read all of that will now know the confusion that lies behind the presence of two quite different images in Eastern Orthodox iconography.  We have already seen the first, which shows the Centurion beseeching Jesus to heal his pais, which is generally interpreted to be his slave by the admixture of Luke’s version of the story with that of Matthew.

John’s story, however, results in quite a different icon type, in which the Centurion (not just “royal official”) has Jesus heal his son.

Here is an example from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos:

We see Jesus and his disciples at left, and the Centurion at right, beside the bed on which his son lies.

The Greek inscription reads:

Ὁ Χριστός ιώµενος τον ὑιον του εκατοντάρχου
Ho Khristos iomenos ton huion tou [h]ekatontarkhou

“Christ Healing the Son of the Centurion.”

Now in Eastern Orthodoxy, Matthew’s tale of the healing of the Centurion’s “servant” is read on the fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  John’s tale of the Royal Official’s (“Nobleman’s”) son is read on Monday of the 3rd week In Pascha.  They are treated as two quite separate “miracles.” But in practice — including in iconography — they are often confused, as we see from the Dionysiou fresco, in which we find the Centurion (not “royal official/nobleman”) of Matthew and Luke, but the Centurion’s son (from the Gospel of John) is the one being healed, not his slave.

If your head is spinning after all that, relax, sit down, have a nice hot cup of herbal tea.


In the Church of the”All-Powerful” Taxiarchs (Ναός των Παμμεγίστων Ταξιαρχών)  at Milies (Μηλίες) on the Pelion Peninsula of Greece, there is an interesting fresco of a wheel that combines the zodiac with stages of human life, and is in a form reminiscent of the Rota Fortunae — the “Wheel of Fortune” so common in Medieval and Renaissance art of western Europe.  Such a wheel in Eastern Orthodoxy is commonly called a Τροχός του Χρόνου/Trokhos tou Khronou — a “Wheel of Time.”

Does it remind you of anything?  It should — but from quite a different context.  We have seen this fellow holding out his cloth before — in icons of the “Descent of the Holy Spirit” at Pentecost. He is the crowned figure at the base:

In those icons, he represents Ὁ Κόσμος — Ho Kosmos — “The Cosmos,” meaning “The World.”  Similarly, in Eastern Orthodox “wheel” images such as this one, he is Ὁ Μάταιος Κόσμος — Ho Mataios Kosmos — “The Vain World.”

If we expand our view outward, we find four human figures:

Clockwise, they are:

At the top:  Spring (Έαρ/Ear), as a youth playing a stringed instrument.  Next at right is Summer (Θέρος/Theros), a somewhat older hunter wearing a hat to protect him from the heat of the sun.  Then at bottom comes Autumn (Φθινόπωρο/Phthinoporo), a shepherd with staff in hand.  And finally at left we see Winter (Χυμών/Khymon), an old man warming himself by a fire.

Moving farther outward, we come to the ring of the Zodiac — the twelve signs of the Zodiac still commonly found today — Aries, Taurus, Gemini — and all the rest.

On the very outer rim — riding the wheel up and down — we find several human figures — rising to wealth and glory at the top, then falling down again:

In the Church of the Nativity in the village of Arbanasi, in Veliko Tarnovo, north-central Bulgaria, there is a similar zodiac fresco image — a “Wheel of Time” in which the cycle of human life is represented:

In traditional western European “Fortune” wheels, the wheel is usually turned by Fortuna herself — the Goddess of Fortune, as in this manuscript example:

In the Arbanasi example, however, the wheel is turned by ropes held by the two figures at the base, who represent “Day” (left) and “Night” (right).

In the center of the Arbanasi wheel, we find the sun instead of the “Vain World” of the Milies example:

The four nude figures around the sun are the Four Seasons, which we saw represented in more symbolic manner in the Milies wheel.  In the ring next to them, we see the twelve zodiac signs, and in the outer ring are the twelve months of the year.

The figures attached to the outer rim of the wheel — those rising to the peak of human vigor and success, then falling again — represent human life and its vanity.  And at the end of the cycle — having ridden the wheel of life up and down — they fall into the mouth of Hades at the base.

These zodiac/time wheels are not common in Eastern Orthodox iconography, but they are found in one variation or another occasionally — usually, as here — in the form of wall paintings in churches.

When seeing such a “Wheel of Time” — also called a Wheel of Life (Τροχός της Ζωής/Trokhos tes Zoes) — one cannot help thinking of those Tibetan images that also represent a wheel of life as the “Wheel of Becoming” (Bhavachakra) — in this case a wheel of rebirth:

By the way, if you are wondering what a Taxiarch/Taxiarkh is (as in the title of the Milies church), it is Greek for a military commander, and in iconography is commonly given to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel as leaders of the heavenly armies.


Here is an icon of the Apostle Paul (Pavel), attributed to Andrey Rublev:

Paul is usually easily recognized by his beard and receding hairline, even without a title inscription.

The writings of Paul are the earliest in the New Testament.  In the letter to the Romans, Paul introduces himself like this, in almost all English versions (Romans 1:1):

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ….”

The Greek of the text, however, says:

Παῦλος, δοῦλος Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ….

Paulos, doulos Iesou Khristou….

“Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ….”

The euphemistic translation we are accustomed to in the KJV —  and almost every other English translation since William Tyndale in 1526 — makes it something of a shock to novices on reading the Greek New Testament when they discover that Paul is not simply saying “a servant” (which most readers do not interpret too literally in any case) — but he is actually saying “a slave.”  Paul describes himself as a slave of Jesus.  That is the real meaning of the Greek doulos.

An inquisitive reader might decide to check further, to see where else this term might be found in the New Testament, and again may get a shock to find it is used some 130 times — about 150 if one counts other forms of the word.

Some, no doubt, will just note this curious and unsettling fact and then move on, but the diligent person who investigates further will come to the disturbing realization that the New Testament is thoroughly pervaded by the notion and culture of slavery — so much so, in fact, that even the relationship of believer to Jesus is generally presented as that of slave (doulos) to master (kyrios/lord).

That in itself should not be surprising, given that slavery was the very foundation of Roman economy and society in the time of beginning and early Christianity.  In the Roman world, the number of slaves in the population was something like one in five — or in Rome itself, one in three.  What is surprising to many moderns is that nowhere in the New Testament is a clear statement found to the effect that slavery should be abolished.  Quite to the contrary, slaves are told in Ephesians 6:6:

Οἱ δοῦλοι, ὑπακούετε τοῖς κατὰ σάρκα κυρίοις μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου ἐν ἁπλότητι τῆς καρδίας ὑμῶν ὡς τῷ χριστῷ,

“Slaves, obey your masters according to the flesh with fear and trembling in sincerity of your heart, as to Christ….”

And again in Colossians 3:22:

Οἱ δοῦλοι, ὑπακούετε κατὰ πάντα τοῖς κατὰ σάρκα κυρίοις, μὴ ἐν ὀφθαλμοδουλείαις ὡς ἀνθρωπάρεσκοι, ἀλλ’ ἐν ἁπλότητι καρδίας, φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν·

“Slaves [douloi], obey in all the masters [kyriois] according to the flesh, not in eye service [i.e. in appearance only], like pleasers of men, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.”

In other words, it is the “duty” of slaves — as Christians — to obey and fear their earthly masters.  That is the sum of New Testament teaching on the matter.

We find the same regarding a related Greek term — oiketes (οἰκέτης), for which the euphemistic but incorrect translation “servant” is also often used.  An oiketes was a slave too, but a particular kind of slave — one whose work was in the οἶκος/oikos — the house or home.  So when the New Testament book 1 Peter 2:18-20 addresses οἰκέται/oiketai (plural form of oiketos), it is advising house slaves:

“O House Slaves [οἰκέται], be subject in all fear to your masters [δεσπόταις/despotais], not only to the good and gentle, but also to the bad [σκολιοῖς /skoliois: literally “crooked,”]; this is indeed acceptable if anyone, for the sake of conscience toward God, endures sorrow — suffering unjustly.  Indeed what kind of credit is it if sinning and being beaten [κολαφιζόμενοι/kolaphizomenoi], you endure it?  But if you do good and are suffering and endure it, this is commendable before God.”

This basically acknowledges the right of masters to beat their house slaves, and the slave is obliged to endure it, whether the punishment is considered “just” or “unjust.”

When one points out the pervasive presence of slavery in the New Testament, it is common for people to say, “Yes, but look at the case of Paul and the runaway slave Onesimus.”

Well, tradition says Onesimus was a runaway slave, but that is not made clear in the letter of Paul called Philemon.  Instead, Paul refers to Onesimus as a brother to Philemon, telling Philemon to receive him

“Not now as a slave, but above a slave, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” [Philemon 1:16]

Nowhere in the letter does Paul actually refer to Onesimus directly as a slave.

It would have made sense for Paul to tell Philemon to take back a slave as a brother “in the Lord,” that is, a Christian, “spiritual” brother, but to say Onesimus is also brother to Philemon in the flesh appears to indicate a sibling relationship.  Perhaps there was a falling out between brothers, with Philemon treating Onesimus like a slave.

Whether or not that was the actual case (it is difficult to say, given the scanty information in the letter), Paul nowhere in this letter condemns the institution of slavery.  Nor, indeed, do we find a condemnation of the institution of slavery anywhere in the New Testament.  Instead we see the slave-master relationship as the fundamental paradigm — the model — for the relationship of Christians to Jesus.

Luke 17:7-9 has Jesus saying,

Τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν δοῦλον ἔχων ἀροτριῶντα ποιμαίνοντα, ὃς εἰσελθόντι ἐκ τοῦ ἀγροῦ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Εὐθέως παρελθὼν ἀνάπεσε, 8ἀλλ’ οὐχὶ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Ἑτοίμασον τί δειπνήσω, καὶ περιζωσάμενος διακόνει μοι ἕως φάγω καὶ πίω, καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα φάγεσαι καὶ πίεσαι σύ

Which one of you, having a slave [doulon] plowing, or shepherding, on coming from the field will say to him “Now that you have come, recline at the table”; but won’t he say to him, “Prepare my supper, and having  girded yourself, serve me while I eat and drink, and after this, you will eat and drink”?

What we do find in the New Testament is the advocacy of what might be euphemistically called “benign slavery,” that is, not questioning or suggesting the abolition of slavery (something the New Testament never does) but rather advocating the “fair” treatment of slaves, as we find in Colossians 4:1, which actually (and again rather shockingly) uses slavery as the framework of Christian theology:

οἱ κύριοι, τὸ δίκαιον καὶ τὴν ἰσότητα τοῖς δούλοις παρέχεσθε, εἰδότες ὅτι καὶ ὑμεῖς ἔχετε κύριον ἐν οὐρανῷ.


 “Masters [kyrioi], that which is just and fair grant to your slaves [ doulois], seeing that you too have a master [kyrios] in heaven.”

Such a “scriptural” justification of slavery accounts for why slavery was not abolished in early  Christianity, but instead continued to be a part of it.  Slavery remained an important part of society in Eastern Orthodox Byzantium — and slavery persisted in Russian Orthodox culture until the abolition of serfdom through the Emancipation Manifesto of 1861, under Tsar Alexander II.

One even finds slavery permitted in the Canons of the Eastern Orthodox Church (as in the Pedalion of Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain), which state, among other things, that a slave may not become a monk without the permission of his master, and that a slave who has been permitted to become a monk — but then leaves monastic life — must become a slave again.  It declares that some are born slaves (such as a child born to a slave mother), while others are made slaves as a result of being captured in war.

In short, slavery was an accepted institution in Eastern Orthodoxy.  That does not mean there was not the occasional exception in opposition.  The strongest of these was likely Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394 — see his Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes), who some call the “first abolitionist.”  His contemporaries Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea, by contrast, held that slavery was the result of sin and thus was a natural part of  the human condition — essentially blaming slaves themselves for their enslavement (“It’s your own fault”), as did St. Augustine.   But neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Latin Christianity took Gregory of Nyssa’s condemnations to heart, which is why the institution of slavery in Christianity lasted into relatively recent times.

Needless to say, it was little comfort to the centuries of Christian slaves in Eastern Orthodox society to be told that while they might be in bondage “in the flesh,” in the “spirit” they were free.  It was hardly a meaningful distinction to a human whose life was lived as a legal piece of property to another Christian.


You may have heard the name Spiro — Spyros/Spiros in Greek, short for Spyridon or Spyridonos, meaning one who weaves a spyrides (σπυρίδες) — a basket.  We find such baskets mentioned in the plural (spyridas/σπυρίδας) in Matthew 16:10, where Jesus reminds his followers how many baskets of bread were picked up after the feeding of the four thousand.

On the island of Cyprus, small round baskets were used as hats by shepherds.  That is why we find this fellow in the robes of a bishop, but wearing a woven basket as his hat.

His name is Spyridon of Trimythous — Ο Άγιος Σπυρίδων /Ho Hagios Spyridon/”Holy Spyridon” for short, and in the longer form Ο Άγιος Σπυρίδων, Επίσκοπος Τριμυθούντος ο Θαυματουργός / Ho Hagios Spyridon, Episkopos Trimythountos, ho Thaumatourgos / “Holy Spyridon, Bishop of Trimythous, the Wonderworker.”

Here he is again.  The inscription reads:


He is shown here with both his characteristic basket hat and an object in his hand taken from the tale of his life.

According to his hagiography, he was born at Assia/Askia (Άσσια/Άσκια) on the island of Cyprus near the beginning of the 4th century, and as a boy became a shepherd.  He eventually married, but his wife died shortly after giving birth to a daughter named Irene.

Spyridon developed a reputation not only for helping the unfortunate, but also for having the ability to heal.  Word of his miraculous abilities eventually even reached the Emperor Constantine (yes, the same one who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire).  Spyridon became so revered on Cyprus that he was made bishop of the city of Trimythous.

Accounts of his life have him participating (along with Nicholas of Myra) at the Council of Nicaea, opposing the non-Trinitarian views of Arius, said to have been defended by a Greek philosopher.  When it came time for Spyridon to speak in favor of the Trinitarian view, he held out a fired ceramic object (some say a potsherd, others a brick or roof tile), and when he squeezed it, flames shot out of it and water flowed from it, while the dry clay remained in his hand (some say it retained its form, others that it turned to dust).  This was to show that though the object was three things, it was still one, just as the Trinity is three yet one.  That is how Spyridon is said to have miraculously demonstrated the Trinity, converting the philosopher.

But like the legend of St. Patrick demonstrating the Trinity by showing a three-leafed clover, Spyridon’s legendary act hardly seems adequate for the purpose.  In any case, fired ceramics are made of clay from the earth combined with water, then exposed to fire.  In Spyridon’s time the ancient elements composing matter were not only earth, fire, and water — but also air — so Spyridon’s act, in the “science” of the time — would have demonstrated a quaternity, rather than a trinity, by the expulsion of air with the other three elements.  Whatever the quibbles over the accuracy of the analogy, it accounts for why Spyridon became the patron saint of potters, and the story also explains why Spyridon is sometimes depicted holding out a brick with water and fire coming out of it, or alternatively — as in the icon above — a ceramic tile.  So when you see a saint in bishop’s garments and a basket hat, holding out a brick or tile from which fire and water are expelled, you can easily identify him as Spyridon of Trimythous.

Those of you who have read the immensely entertaining and autobiographical “Corfu” books of Gerald Durrell (My Family and Other Animals, etc.) or seen the TV series The Durrels in Corfu,  will know that Spyridon is the patron saint of the island of Corfu, where Spyros or Spyridon is a common male name, and Spyridoula and its short form Loula a common female name.  It was the embroidered slippers on the mummifed body said to be that of Spyridon — still kept in the Church of Hagios Spyridon in Corfu — that Gerald’s sister Margo kissed, following local tradition, then became horribly ill with the flu as a consequence.  His slippers are changed every year, and folk belief is that each year they become worn because Spyridon rises and walks about the island at night, doing good.  Spyridon’s remains are said to have been brought from Constantinople to Corfu when the city fell to the invading muslims in 1453.

The example below shows the death of Spyridon surrounded by scenes from his life and miracles, which include such fantastic tales as his turning a serpent to gold to help a poor man, his raising his daughter from the dead to ask her a question about the location of a valuable object, and so on.  Note that in the central scene, the soul of Spyridon — in the form of an infant — is being carried up to heaven by angels:

Here is another and similar example, painted by Theodoros Poulakis, though in this one the central image is of Spyridon enthroned and blessing:

A particularly interesting scene in both icons is this one, as shown by Poulakis:


The tale it tells is that Spyridon and another were riding horses on the way to the Council of Nicaea.  Arians tried to stop the saint by cutting off the heads of the horses during the night.   But Spyridon told a servant to put the heads back on the horses, and they miraculously came to life.  However, the servant had mistakenly confused the heads, putting the wrong one on each.  That is why the bodies and heads of the two horses in the scene do not match, but are different colors.